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The Connect to Protect Network: Botanical gardens working to restore habitats and conserve rare species

Volume 6 Number 1 - January 2009
Joyce Maschinski, et al.

Authors: Joyce Maschinski, Scott Lewis, Don Walters, Jennifer Possley, Samuel J. Wright, Julissa Roncal and Caroline Lewis

Introduction

Throughout the world, coastal habitats are gravely threatened by sea level rising. Focusing on the ecosystems and species at greatest risk of extinction in South Florida and the Caribbean, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has begun a conservation initiative for globally endangered pine rocklands. Our efforts directly link ecological restoration to rare species conservation, while engaging the public to participate in the solution to a daunting conservation problem. We created The Connect to Protect Network that includes concentrated seed collections of common and rare pine rockland species, collaborations with the educational programme ‘Fairchild Challenge’ to engage community members in pine rockland restoration, and partnerships with private and public land owners to create pine rockland gardens as stepping stones between pine rockland fragments.

The Connect to Protect Network

Globally endangered pine rocklands occur only in South Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Known by their South Florida slash pines (Pinus elliotii var. densa) and saw palmettos (Serenoa repens), they support over 400 native plant species, of which 31 are endemic, five are listed as federally endangered, and five are candidates for listing. Rapid development in South Florida has endangered pine rocklands and their rare species. Once found extensively on limestone uplands in South Florida, today less than 2% remain as small fragments outside of the Everglades National Park. Many are protected by the Miami-Dade County, but some remain on unprotected public and private land. When habitats become fragmented, plant populations become isolated and shrink in size. Fragmentation reduces the opportunities for pollinators to find flowers, which in turn may decrease seed production and the genetic health of these populations. Rare plants living in pine rocklands are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic events, such as hurricanes, and recovery from losses becomes more questionable. To help preserve and strengthen our remaining pine rocklands and to increase the numbers of pine rockland plants growing in Miami-Dade County, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden recently launched the Connect to Protect Network with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Our objective is to create corridors and "stepping stones" to connect isolated pine rockland remnants and restore existing parcels to improve forest health. These corridors will serve to increase the probability that bees, butterflies, and birds can find and transport seeds and pollen across developed areas. Public and privately-owned pine rockland parcels may become part of the network. If degraded, parcels will be restored and planted with native pine rockland species. It is our hope that the interchange of seeds and pollen will improve gene flow and the likelihood that these species will persist over the long term. Threatened and endangered species planted in corridors will have increased numbers and reduced extinction risk.

Pine rockland seed collections

Meeting the goals of the Connect to Protect Network will require planting many native pine rockland species that are not in the commercial trade. In preparation, we have collected seeds of pine rockland plants to learn about their germination, storage and cultivation requirements. Ex situ collections provide insurance against species extinction, plants for reintroduction or augmentation, and material to study the biology of rare species. Seed banks are a convenient and inexpensive way to conserve germplasm in a relatively small space. Although orthodox seed storage involving drying and freezing seeds generally works well for plants of temperate regions, it is unknown whether south Florida subtropical species will withstand drying or freezing. Therefore, we have begun testing seeds to determine optimal seed storage requirements for these species.

To date we have collected over 50,000 seeds of 35 species for tests and long-term storage at The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Ft. Collins, CO, USA. Germination, desiccation and freezing trials indicate that most of the pine rockland species we have examined are capable of orthodox seed storage.

Collaborations with the Fairchild Challenge

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden's environmental education outreach programme for middle and high school students is called the Fairchild Challenge. Comprised of a menu of multidisciplinary competitions, this free annual programme is designed for students of diverse interests, abilities, talents, and backgrounds and is open to all schools in the Greater Miami area. Successfully reaching a traditionally under-represented demographic group at botanical gardens, last year more than 40,000 students and 1,800 teachers from more than 100 middle and high schools participated in the programme.

 

With The Fairchild Challenge, we engaged students in diverse activities related to the Connect to Protect Network. As part of a 2007 Fairchild Challenge contest, Miami Palmetto High School student Yunxin Jiao designed the winning logo and suggested the slogan, “Connect to Protect” for our initiative.

Fairchild Challenge participating students have also helped us restore endangered species habitat. In October 2007 and February 2008, 100 students helped restore a fire-suppressed pine rockland that is home to the federally endangered crenulate lead plant (Amorpha herbacea var. crenulata). Because pine rocklands are adapted to periodic natural fires, which are infrequent in Miami-Dade County urban landscapes, conditions that are optimal for Amorpha growth and seedling recruitment are limited. In the absence of fire, shrubs and vines create dense shaded conditions and a deep layer of pine needles and palm fronds accumulate on the ground. Thanks to the efforts of students we removed 110 bags of leaf litter and stacked several large piles of vines and palm fronds! Miami-Dade County Natural Areas Management crews followed the students’ efforts by thinning hardwood trees and shrubs to open the canopy. Fairchild will return to monitor Amorpha growth and seedling establishment. But in addition to the potential benefits of the restoration on the rare species, the enthusiasm of the students and their teachers was powerful. Many wanted to know when they could come back to continue the work, so we suspect that we have some committed conservationists to help with future projects.

Several schools are also creating pine rockland gardens in their schoolyards. Schools located near corridors and natural areas serve as “stepping stones” between natural areas, increasing total space occupied by plants in the urban matrix and providing homes for the pollinators. In addition, these school gardens give students an opportunity to gain real experience in ecology, habitat restoration, and conservation. Fairchild facilitates the creation of these gardens by providing instruction to teachers, pine rockland plants and seeds, assistance with installation, and ideas about how gardens can be incorporated into maths and science instruction.

Experimental introductions of rare species

Unfortunately many South Florida rare species habitats are rapidly changing, such that they are becoming unsuitable for sustaining rare plant populations in the long-term. Surrounded by inhospitable matrices, migration and population expansion is prevented. Worse still, there may not be any suitable habitat remaining within their historic range into which they can disperse even if assisted by humans. Existing anthropogenic impacts leave few patches of land with natural vegetation of any sort, much less patches with special characteristics required by rare species.

Though the prospects are daunting, Fairchild has conducted experimental introductions of the regions’ rarest species. After Fairchild scientists systematically review ecological, political and logistical criteria of potential reintroduction sites, we work closely with local land managers to restore habitats and introduce rare species. Initial findings of our studies suggest that it is possible to introduce species to novel habitats. By treating initial reintroductions as experiments to learn about the capacity of species to grow under current available conditions, we are hedging bets against uncertainty and improving chances for species persistence into the next century.

Conclusions

At Fairchild, we are concerned about the persistence of the rare and common plants in South Florida habitats that are predicted to be inundated by sea level rise within the next 100 years. Our proactive approach includes the following steps:

  • Ex-situ conservation through live collections and seed banking to increase options available for the future;
  • Connect forest fragments with corridors to increase the probability of pollination and seed dispersal;
  • Decrease extinction risk through restoring ecosystem health and reintroducing rare species;
  • Empower the community, especially middle and high school students, to help be part of the solution.

Acknowledgments

This work has been funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry and Miami-Dade County Natural Areas Management & Environmentally Endangered Lands Programs.

Key references:

Guerrant, Jr. E. O., Havens, K., and Maunder, M. 2004. Ex situ plant conservation: supporting species survival in the wild. Island Press, Washington D.C.

Maschinski, J. and Wright, S. J.. 2006. Using ecological theory to plan restorations of the endangered beach jacquemontia in fragmented habitats. Journal for Nature Conservation 14: 180-189.

Maschinski, J., Possley, J., Bradley, K., Wright, S., Stolt, J., Walters, C., and Collins, M. 2007. Developing corridors to alleviate problems of urban fragmentation on rare plant populations in South Florida: March 2007. Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Agreement No. 401816G137, South Florida Ecological Services Office, Vero Beach, FL.

Maschinski, J. and Lewis, S. 2008. Fairchild launches the Connect to Protect Network. The Tropical Garden, Spring 2008.

Myers, R.L. and Ewel, J.J. 1990. Ecosystems of Florida. University of Central Florida Press. Orlando, Florida, USA.

Possley, J., Hines, K., Maschinski, J., Dozier, J. and Rodriguez, C. 2007. A common passion: multiple agencies and volunteers unite to reintroduce goatsfoot passionflower to rockland hammocks of Miami, Florida, USA. Native Plants Journal 8:252-258.

Possley, J., Maschinski, J., Rodriguez, C. and Dozier, J. 2008. Alternatives for reintroducing a rare ecotone species: manually thinned forest edge versus restored habitat remnant. Restoration Ecology online doi 10.111/j.1526-100X.2008.00395.x.

Roncal, J., Maschinski, J., Schaffer, B. and Gutierrez, S. M. 2008. Introducing endangered species on a changing landscape: A case study of Amorpha herbacea var. crenulata (Fabaceae) in South Florida. In Maschinski, J., Wright S. J., Wendelberger, K., Pascarella, J., Schaffer, B., and. Roncal, J. 2007. Ongoing efforts to reintroduce and study two endangered plant species, beach jacquemontia and crenulate lead-plant. Final report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Florida Ecological Services Office, Vero Beach, FL.

Wendelberger, K.S. and Maschinski, J. 2008. Linking GIS, observational and experimental studies to determine optimal seedling microsites of an endangered plant in a subtropical urban fire-adapted ecosystem. Restoration Ecology online doi:10.1111/j.1526-100X.2008.00422.x.

Wendelberger, K. S., Fellows, M. Q.N. and Maschinski, J. 2007. Rescue and restoration: Experimental translocation of Amorpha herbacea Walter. var. crenulata (Rybd.) Isley into a novel urban habitat. Restoration Ecology online doi: 10.1111/j.1526-100x.2007.00325.x .

Wright, S. J. and Thornton, H. 2003. A ranked list of restoration sites for J. reclinata. In Maschinski, J., Wright, S. J., Thornton, H., Fisher, J., Pascarella, J. B., Lane, C., Pinto-Torres, E., and Carrara, S. Restoration of Jacquemontia reclinata to the South Florida Ecosystem. Final Report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for Grant Agreement 1448-40181-99-G-173.

Correspondence to:

Joyce Maschinski
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Rd.
Miami, FL 33156, USA.
Email: jmaschinski@fairchildgarden.org